Discover Michelin-listed restaurants, a stirring old town and epic coastal scenery with a weekend in France's Saint-Malo.
Saint-Malo has one of the most breathtakingly beautiful settings of any city in Brittany – its narrow, cobbled streets enclosed within massive defensive walls, which jut out into the sea, surrounded by huge sandy beaches and rocky islands bristling with fortresses.
It grew fantastically rich on maritime trade and from piracy – Saint-Malo is often nicknamed the ‘Corsair City’, its privateers (in service of the King of France) proving themselves hugely adept at preying on English shipping in La Manche. The city was almost entirely destroyed during the Second World War, but – unlike many other towns – was rebuilt in its original style, rather than in concrete.
Saint-Malo is wonderfully easy to reach by ferry from the UK and is perfectly placed for exploring the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel.
Check-in at: La Maison des Armateurs. A smart 4-star with a fantastic location in the heart of the old town, it's just inside the main city gates. Or just a 25-minute walk from the old town walls, there’s the lovely Hotel Les Charmettes with rooms overlooking the great sweep of golden sand that is the Grande Plage du Sillon.
Walk along the old town walls: The best way to start a visit to Saint-Malo is with a walk around the old walls, or les remparts. You can make a complete circuit of the old town, with the exception of the former château in the northeast corner. The walls can be accessed from several points including La Grand' Porte and Porte Saint Vincent, as well as Plage de Bon-Secours, and there are plenty of opportunities to make an impromptu diversion to a café or down onto the beach. For the best views, start at Porte Saint Vincent and go clockwise.
Have dinner at: Le Coude à Coude. This Michelin-listed restaurant faces Saint-Malo’s longest beach, the Grande Plage du Sillon, with an emphasis on locally sourced seafood and seasonal vegetables, some of which are from their own gardens near Mont-Saint-Michel.
Go for a nightcap at: La Java, a quirky café-bar in the old town, its walls and ceiling covered with dolls, bric-a-brac and old posters. Definitely one of Saint-Malo’s most iconic drinking spots.
Explore the old town: Much of the enduring fascination of Saint-Malo is the charm of the old town itself, its walled interior (intra-muros) a wonderful old warren of cobbled streets and alleys, dark granite, buzzing restaurants and cafés, and salt-whiff of the sea everywhere. As you wander around the old town, you might have to pinch yourself to remember that it was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing towards the end of the Second World War – and was meticulously rebuilt in its original medieval style between 1948 and 1960, using stone from the island of Chaucey.
Places you shouldn’t miss include the Cathédrale Saint-Vincent with its stained glass; the memorial to members of the Résistance who lost their lives during the Second World War; and the Maison du Québec – 16th century explorer Jacques Cartier, who was the first European to navigate and map the Saint Lawrence River, was from Saint-Malo. The museum house also puts on theatre, music and dance performances showcasing the culture of Québec during the summer months. If you want to grab some locally brewed beers to take home (such as the excellent, organic Bosco) head for L’Ecume des Bières.
Have a post-wander coffee at: Tam's Kaffe. There’s no shortage of places to stop for a coffee within the old town walls, but this one, with it sunny terrace, impeccably good coffee and friendly service, is definitely one of the best.
Lunch at: Crêperie Chantal. Founded back in 1955, this is one of the oldest crêperies in Saint-Malo and still a local favourite, with friendly service and atmosphere in spades. Slightly off the busier streets, it’s located on a quiet square and serves delicious, good-value galettes and crêpes (try the La Capra, with goat’s cheese, shredded iceberg lettuce and a light honey dressing).
Discover Saint-Malo’s beaches and islands: Saint-Malo’s walled old town is surrounded by gorgeous beaches on two sides, and just offshore the view is studded with rocky islands – several of them fortified by Vauban, the great 17th-century architect in the service of Louis XIV. Some are possible to visit on foot at low tide.
An old stone causeway leads out from Plage de Bon Secours to the nearest of these, Ilot du Grand Bé, and Le Petit Bé beyond it. A short walk up to the top of the Grand Bé is rewarded with fabulous views back towards the old town, ringed by its massive, dark walls. It’s easy to see why the French writer Chateaubriand chose the Grand Bé as his final resting place. You can also walk out to the Fort National at low tide.
Exactly when you do all of this will be entirely dependent on the tide – you can only walk out to the islands at low tide and the tide comes in very fast. Check tide times, as you might need to re-jiggle your plans dependent on these.
If you fancy a swim, there’s Plage de Bon Secours right below the old walls, with its seawater swimming pool, or head around past Fort National to the huge stretch of sandy beach, known collectively as La Grande Plage du Sillon.
Unai Huizi Photography/Shutterstock
Enjoy a vegan feast at: Annadata. With delicious food, exquisitely beautiful presentation, lovely friendly service, stylish décor and a wonderfully relaxed atmosphere, this restaurant is an outstanding vegetarian and vegan spot in the old town. It's one of only half a dozen vegan restaurants in Brittany – so it’s worth reserving a table.
Sip drinks at: La Belle Epoque. A popular bar within the old town, it's a good place to head for if you fancy a cocktail.
Go for a bike ride along the coast: Hire e-bikes from Abicyclette Voyages and head out along the coast towards Cancale and Le Vivier-sur-Mer, following some of the Vélomaritime cycle route, which at this point runs along the edge of the Bay of Mont-Saint-Michel. You’ll be following cycle lanes out of Saint-Malo, then a main road before the route turns off onto country lanes with minimal traffic. Further on, you'll cycle along a lovely bike path next to the beach, with Mont-Saint-Michel visible ahead.
You can make it a shorter day (or cover more of the coast) by getting a morning train out to Pontorson (the station closest to Mont-Saint-Michel) and cycling back to Saint-Malo from there – and in that case, why not include a visit to Mont-Saint-Michel itself? It’s a marvellous place, rising up out of the sea like a great multi-tiered wedding cake, fascinating and unforgettable regardless of the huge numbers of visitors in the summer. You need to reserve a place for bikes on the train, and you can’t leave bikes at the end of the causeway to Mont-Saint-Michel – lock them at the bike racks near the ticket office and take the shuttle bus (or walk) from there.
Stop for lunch at: Au Pied d’Cheval. There's a slew of places along the waterfront in Cancale offering the obligatory fresh mussels, oysters or other shellfish. Au Pied d’Cheval is a good choice, with a nice atmosphere and outdoor seating, around a bench where oysters are cracked open.
Book dinner at: Le Bistrot du Rocher. Another small Michelin-listed place on Rue de Toulouse, it's away from the more touristy restaurants, with an emphasis on local market produce.
Getting to Saint-Malo
The most pleasant way to travel to Saint-Malo from the UK is unquestionably by ferry – waking up and getting your first sight of the Brittany coast from your cabin porthole in the golden early morning light is pretty hard to beat. Brittany Ferries has overnight sailings from Portsmouth to Saint-Malo, arriving at 08:15, with a return crossing during the day – as well as several other cross-Channel routes. The ferry terminal in Saint-Malo is just a 10-minute walk from the old town walls (but leave yourself enough time in case one of the harbour bridges opens to let yachts through, which closes the road for around 20 minutes).
Explore the old town on foot and hire bikes or e-bikes for the surrounding area. There are trains to Pontorson for Mont-Saint-Michel with a change at Dol-de-Bretagne (though not all have a very convenient connection). For more information head to the friendly and helpful Tourist Information Office just outside the Porte Saint-Vincent or visit the Brittany Tourist Office website.
Lead image: Antoine2K/Shutterstock
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